Medtech Employers Need to Keep Pace with Job Market

With many specialized skills in demand and competition from other fast-paced industries like high tech, medtech companies may need to do more to retain top talent.

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The medical device and diagnostics industry is a smart place to build a career. Professionals working in the field say they enjoy the work for the chance to pioneer new medical advances, to solve challenges, and to make a positive impact for patients.

For the past few years, medtech employees have been able to call the shots, with an abundance of well-paying, meaningful roles and continued growth in the sector. As the trend toward crossover with consumer tech continues and as other industries piles on cool perks, high salaries, and prestige, leading medtech recruiters are urging medtech companies to keep an eye on their key talent.

Strong Hiring Market Continues

The hiring market continues to be strong, favoring candidates. Mike Travis, principal at recruiting firm Travis & Company, Inc. in Newton Center, MA, explained, “It’s a great time to be an employee, because if you’re a top performer, you are really in the driver’s seat.”

The strong job market seems to be driven not just by a healthy economy, but also the pace of mergers and acquisitions in the industry. Of the professionals who responded to the 2017 MD+DI Medtech Salary Survey, 42% said their organization had been involved in an acquisition or merger during the prior 12 months. As companies combine, employees switch firms, leaving behind open positions that need to be filled.

Dan Newhall, managing partner at NCompass Recruiting, a San Francisco-area firm specializing in medical device and biotechnology positions, pointed specifically to the series of acquisitions over the past couple years that resulted in the combination of Thoratec, St. Jude Medical, Alere, and Abbott. “That’s been a big one,” he said. “That’s actually created a lot of churn in the market.”

Although employees continue to wield a lot of power in the job market, this hasn’t necessarily translated to major increases in compensation. Most medtech positions come with strong—but not outlier—salaries.

“I don’t see really unusual or anomalous things that companies are doing on compensation . . . It’s not a situation like some of the computing markets, where you can see huge bonuses and other perks that would be really unusual in medical devices,” said Travis. “But I think that there’s been healthy and reasonable wage growth.”

 

There are some exceptions. Marissa Marsala of Employer & Candidate Connection in San Diego has seen some senior positions and in-demand roles pulling down bigger salaries and better benefits. For executive positions, “the air is thinner,” she said. “[Companies] know they need to compete for the best talent to lead the charge, so there I’m seeing a lot of competition . . . In the higher echelons they’re willing to do a lot more to get the right talent.”

Wireless, Wearables, and What’s Hot Now

As in other industries, there’s a sharpened interest among medical device and diagnostics companies in remote monitoring, wearables, and other tools being developed to cut healthcare costs while improving patient care. That means that software—and people who have related experience—are in high demand.

“One area where I see a lot of demand—and partly it’s because the supply is quite small—are new categories of devices that are primarily software,” Travis said. He added, “It’s a big, growing area, many of the companies can make arguments that they’re saving a lot of money for hospitals. Because it’s such a new area, there aren’t a lot of people who are expert in it.”

There are very few ideal candidates, Travis explained, because the perfect hire would have a background integrating electronic medical records, have hands-on experience on the clinical and hospital side, and of course, have software expertise.

Newhall agreed, pointing out a shift in the most desired technical skills. “In the past, mechanical engineers were certainly in high demand,” he said. “They’re still in demand to a degree, but some type of electromechanical or software and hardware skill set is much more in demand than it’s ever been.”

The potential candidates pursuing these in-demand roles tend to prioritize pioneering, futuristic projects, Marsala pointed out. “Wireless and wearables are definitely sexy,” she said. “If I have an engineer and I have two jobs, and one of them is wearables, I’m going to lose them to [that] job. In most cases, that’s the sexy, hot thing.”

In addition, regulatory and clinical expertise ensures a medtech professional can easily find new opportunities. Skills handling regulatory approvals, working with regulatory bodies, clinical work for new products, are consistently needed, Marsala said. “Regulatory and clinical people seem to be very Teflon-like. Nothing seems to change the fact that those folks are needed.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Almost 15% of the respondents to the 2017 MD+DI Medtech Salary Survey said that they are actively looking for a new job. The motivations behind the job search vary, from one professional who is looking for growth opportunities to another who explained that there are plenty of open roles for experienced professionals.

Newhall acknowledged that while the strong economy may be an underlying factor, many individuals are making the decision to look around for personal reasons, like a frustrating boss, an unhappy work environment, or lifestyle considerations.

Of course, there may be common themes, like an unclear path toward a promotion, Travis said. He explained that the biggest reason he sees high performers jump into the job market is because they don’t see a way to get to the next role they’re aspiring to within a company—or don’t see it as a possibility within a reasonable timeframe. “People will sometimes get blocked in an organization and to get the next step in the timeframe they want, they have to go somewhere else,” he said.

If it’s possible to generalize by age group, baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and millennials tend to be spurred to start a job search for different reasons, too, Marsala noted. While millennials are chasing a new, stimulating challenge, Gen X and Gen Y professionals often crave cutting edge projects, she said. Baby boomers, after decades in the career, may want recognition. “[There are] a lot of generational differences,” she noted.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the majority of medtech professionals are seemingly content at their current companies—just over half of the professionals who responded to the survey said they are not considering a new job search. A major factor in job satisfaction and the decision to stay put? A feeling that their work in medtech is helping patients. “That’s the underlying thing with medtech,” Newhall said. Companies make the case that people who want to impact patient lives and advance medical care can join the cause. “Whether or not that’s going to be sufficient moving forward, I don’t know,” he added.

Employers Need to Do More

Recruiters did hint that medtech companies may not realize how in-demand many of their employees are. “A lot of employers haven’t quite gotten the memo that it’s not their market anymore,” Marsala said. She explained that medtech employers, out of habit or corporate policy, ask to see three great candidates for a role, but oftentimes there aren’t that many professionals available that fit the description. In some cases, an ideal candidate will be available, but because of high demand, any delay on the employer’s part may mean they lose out on securing that professional.

Travis echoed that. “I think employers, if they haven’t done so already, have to recognize that their best people are highly vulnerable. They get calls from people like me all the time,” he said. “No one needs to stay in a job they don’t like right now.”

Newhall expressed concern over medtech’s ability to keep attracting the best candidates despite the strong pull of Silicon Valley and high tech companies. Many medical device professionals are working in warehouses and cubicles, a far cry from the refreshed office layouts many tech firms use in hopes of maximizing productivity and increasing employee engagement. “There’s no real hipness to it, so to speak,” Newhall said. “From a work environment standpoint, they’re certainly not competing.” And while some particularly in-demand hires may receive higher salaries, medtech employers aren’t making any major concessions, he said.

A small number of the surveyed professionals said they were hoping to switch away from medtech to another industry. One respondent said, “Might switch—thinking about a tech company for extra pay/benefits.” Another mentioned moving to a new industry, “something with more of a risk-taking culture.”

Referring to areas of the country and device niches where they must contend with high tech companies in wooing candidates, Travis said that medtech companies have to do more. “In situations like that, the medical device companies aren’t in control of the employment market. They really, if they want to compete, they have to offer a little bit more than they might want to.”

It may not always take piles of money and lavish perks to keep the best employees. Travis pointed out that since so many of the top candidates he sees are looking for new opportunities because they don’t see a way to achieve their career goals at their current firm, one way to retain talent is to help them map out a path. “That usually means having someone sit down with them and really understand their career goals and outline a way that they can achieve them at your company rather than somewhere else. I think that’s the way you hold on to people, even more than compensation,” he said.

Indeed, many professionals who responded to the 2017 MD+DI Medtech Salary Survey said that they were frustrated by the lack of growth opportunities at their current medtech companies. Complaints about delayed promotions, stifled career growth, and little upward mobility were common.

Money Still Talks

Compensation probably does matter a great deal to many professionals, especially those living in high-cost medtech hubs like San Francisco or Boston.

The cluster of medtech companies working in the Bay Area have an extra obstacle in attracting top candidates, Newhall said. “It’s certainly gotten worse. The cost of living [in the Bay Area] is super difficult. The salaries in general have increased slightly, but really, for companies to wrap their heads around paying people more is always a very difficult thing for them to do.”

In the Boston area, where unemployment is impressively low and there is fierce competition among high tech industries for professionals with technical prowess, additional benefits are sometimes being offered, Travis said. Medtech companies might allow employees to work remotely or to set up flexible in-office working hours, allowing them to skip heavy rush hour traffic.

Not Feeling In-Demand?

But what if you’re a medtech professional who isn’t feeling the strength of the economy? Although hiring seems robust from the outside, Marsala pointed out that many medtech companies have adopted temp arrangements instead of full-time positions. “The world is going temp,” she said, adding that the trend seems most common for younger people entering the medtech industry. The popularity of temp hiring stems from an abundance of caution on the part of large and small companies looking to avoid mass layoffs and significant severance payouts if something should go wrong.

Marsala’s best advice for medtech employees who feel they are facing a future of temp roles? “Be as flexible as you can, and as useful to that company as you can, and malleable, and upbeat, and positive, and do not complain,” she said. “When decisions need to be made in a rough economy, you are likely to be salvaged, kept, if you are one of these utility players.”

Medtech Professionals Need Support

While many professionals participating in the 2017 MD+DI Medtech Salary Survey emphasized a passion for medical devices and diagnostics, the career can also be demanding and stressful. That means proper support, accommodation, and recognition are even more valuable within the industry.

“I think that due to the regulatory environment in medical device companies, there’s a lot of pressure and there are a lot of high pressure jobs that actually end up in medical device,” Newhall said. “I think that companies need to be mindful of that and make sure that they’re fostering environments that are healthy work environments for people in order to keep people around. Otherwise, they’re going to see massive amounts of attrition.”

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